What Is an Atheist?

What Is an Atheist?

What is an atheist? We may think we know what an atheist is, but do we? According to Merriam-Webster, an atheist is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods.” Historically, Christians were called “atheists” for believing in only one God instead of the pantheon of pagan gods. Today, data from the Pew Research Center (which we talked about yesterday) indicates that it is not easy to define what an atheist is.

Reading through the Pew Research Center report, I found some interesting facts. In 2009, 2% of Americans described themselves as atheists. In 2018 and 2019, that increased to 4%. However, 18% of those who self-described as atheists said that they “believe in some kind of higher power.” Even more surprising is that 54% of atheists say they “often feel a sense of wonder about the universe.” Apparently, even atheists have an innate spiritual sense. Could that be because humans are created in God’s image? When we ask, “What is an atheist?” perhaps we also should ask what keeps them from believing. Could it sometimes be the actions of believers?

Surprisingly, about a third of American atheists say they think about meaning and purpose in life at least once a week, and they “often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being.” Two-thirds (63%) listed family as a source of meaning. That compares to 73% of Christians finding meaning in the family. However, Atheists placed much greater meaning on money, hobbies, and travel than did Christians or Americans in general. Is that an attempt to fill the empty spiritual void?

When we ask, “What is an atheist?” we should keep in mind that most U.S. atheists are men (68%). They are also relatively young, with a median age of 34, compared to 46 for the general public. Of the American general public, only 27% have a college degree. Among those who identify as atheists, 43% have graduated from college. Can we blame the high percentage of college-educated atheists on atheistic professors in American higher education? Maybe some blame lies in the many churches that teach anti-scientific doctrines, which college students quickly learn cannot be accurate. Hold that thought until we continue this discussion tomorrow.

— Roland Earnst © 2024

Reference: Pew Research Center